The clue’s in the title (but is it?)

Image: Petr Heřman/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Petr Heřman/Wikimedia Commons.

With no disrespect intended to the authors – Takashi Yaeno et al. – who, at first glance, is able to tell me what the article entitled, ‘Phosphatidylinositol monophosphate-binding interface in the oomycete RXLR effector AVR3a is required for its stability in host cells to modulate plant immunity’  is about? I know, I struggled with it, too. And if it wasn’t for the user-friendlier text of such science-news-disseminating sites as PhysOrg.Com – which more-informatively summarises that paper thus, ‘Phytophthora infestans [sadly, that scientific name not italicised], the causal agent of late blight, has evolved to overcome fungicides and major resistance genes that have been bred into commercial potato cultivars. In order to dampen the immune response of its host, P. infestans secretes molecules called disease effectors at the site of infection’ – this eminently newsworthy piece of science would have completely passed me by. OK, I suppose the clue in the title is the term ‘oomycete’, which often – and rightly so on this occasion – rings alarm bells in my mind because I associate it with Phytophthora infestans (an organism that once-upon-a-time was numbered amongst the fungi), which causes a devastating disease of potatoes, potato late blight. Which disease historically – and infamously – caused tremendous suffering in Ireland and is oft-cited as the cause of one of the world’s most famous diasporas that saw hundreds of thousand of Irishmen, -women and -children emigrating to North America in the mid-19th Century.

And the point of this item is to highlight the debate about the importance of the title to a scientific article. Well, there really isn’t any debate – titles are important, as aired in a blog by ‘graduate student bryologist’ Jessica Budke. Musing on the merits of humorous or otherwise titles, Budke cited some intriguing studies that examined these testy titular topics. Hamid Jamali and Mahsa Nikzad in their straightforwardly entitled, ‘Article title type and its relation with the number of downloads and citations’ analysed more than 2000 articles from PLoS journals (Public Library of Science). They concluded that, ‘articles with question titles tended to be downloaded more but cited less than the others. Articles with longer titles were downloaded slightly less than the articles with shorter titles. Titles with colon tended to be longer and receive fewer downloads and citations. As expected, number of downloads and citations were positively correlated’. Also cited by Budke, Itay Sagi and Eldad Yechiam’s equally non-sensationalistically entitled paper, ‘Amusing titles in scientific journals and article citation’ examined articles in Psychological Bulletin and the Psychological Review. They found that, ‘articles with highly amusing titles… received fewer citations’. Interestingly, a responder to Budke’s blog highlighted the case of Tom Rees who has become increasingly irked by titles featuring colons. Hmmm, one of the worst cases of colonic irritation I’ve come across… And, to some extent contradictorily, Thomas Jacques and Neil Sebire – who analysed medical journals – found that, ‘The number of citations was positively correlated with the length of the title, the presence of a colon in the title and the presence of an acronym’.

What can we deduce from the foregoing? You cannot necessarily predict what a good title will be, but that medical types like colons (well, they would, wouldn’t they?). So, Titles: All a bit too hit-and-miss? Maybe, but let’s conclude with some sage words of advice from SciDev.Net, ‘A title should be the fewest possible words that accurately describe the content of the paper’. And – in that vein – one is pleased to report that a subsequent paper from ‘the group of Sophien Kamoun at The Sainsbury Lab’ that began this item has a much-more-obvious-what-it’s-about title in a follow-up article by Tolga Bozkurt et al.: ‘Phytophthora infestans effector AVRblb2 prevents secretion of a plant immune protease at the haustorial interface’. But let’s be honest, though: the main interest in PNAS vol. 108, issue No. 35 – which contained the ‘Yaeno et al. oomycete paper’ – was the fungus-related lager yeast item by Diego Libkind et al.  soberly entitled – but maybe coming to a colon near you…soon?  – ‘Microbe domestication and the identification of the wild genetic stock of lager-brewing yeast’. Which tells how, ‘in the 15th century, when Europeans first began moving people and goods across the Atlantic, a microscopic stowaway somehow made its way to the caves and monasteries of Bavaria’. Cheers!

[Given that – taken together – their titles break every known rule, I intend keeping a very close eye on the citation/download rates of my own Plant Cuttings’ items!] [So do I(!) – Ed.]